Why Jeb Bush Can't Bank On Faith Like His Brother Did

Jun 3, 2015
Originally published on June 5, 2015 2:15 pm

Evangelical voters are a major force in Iowa Republican politics. A force that can tip the balance in the state's marquee event: the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses.

And it's been that way for a long time. Sixteen years ago those voters delivered in a big way for a Texas governor named George W. Bush. But it's not likely that the younger brother of that successful presidential hopeful will get that same kind of support in the 2016 election. Jeb Bush is certainly a deeply religious man — and he shares his brother's conservative views on key social issues. But despite that, many religious voters view the former Florida governor with suspicion.

Last month Jeb Bush visited Iowa's Loras College, a small, Catholic liberal arts school located in Dubuque.

It may have been an ideal place to talk about his faith in some detail, but the comments he did make came more as an afterthought at the end of his remarks.

"Gosh, what was it, twenty years ago I converted to Catholicism," Bush said, "It was one of the smartest things I've done in my whole life."

He spoke to a small audience of just over a hundred. Seated in the front row was his wife, Columba Bush, a lifelong Catholic whose religion he joined when he was in his 40s. Bush went on to say, "I believe that it is the architecture that gives me the serenity I need, not just as a public leader or in life. It gives me peace. It allows me to have a closer relationship with my creator."

It was a firm statement of belief. But it was considerably different than the almost evangelical way George W. Bush spoke about his faith during his first presidential campaign. At the Iowa Straw Poll in the summer of 1999, the future president was cheered when he said, "America's strongest foundation is not found in our wallets. It is found in our souls."

As a candidate, George W. Bush often talked about personal redemption. Including how at age 40 he quit drinking, and how he embraced religion with the help of none other than the Reverend Billy Graham. He often spoke of protecting the unborn, as he did in a debate during the 2000 general election campaign.

"I think what the next president ought to do is promote a culture of life in America," he said.

That played very well with Iowa evanglicals and Bush coasted to victory in the Iowa caucuses. But Christopher Budzisz, a political science professor at Loras College, says George Bush got those voters with more than words. He used organization as well.

"One thing the Bush campaign was very concerted about was reaching out to the church networks and getting advocates for the candidacy oftentimes outside the gaze of the media or public conversation," said Budzisz.

He says that's not happening in the same way for Jeb Bush.

Evangelical voters are more organized in Iowa than they were four presidential elections ago. And they make up 60 percent of GOP Iowa caucus participants.

Despite Jeb Bush's opposition to abortion — and same-sex marriage — many voters here see him as moderate. This reaction, from Republican voter Byron Carlson, a physician, is not unusual: "I would say I'm a Christian conservative, but I think at this time it's a wide open field with lots of options." After seeing this Bush speak recently, he added, "Jeb just wasn't that impressive to me listening to him."

Bob Vander Plaats, who heads the state's top social conservative organization The Family Leader, praised Bush's record in dealing with the Terri Schiavo case when he was governor of Florida. Bush fought the removal of the brain-damaged woman's feeding tube, even after she'd been unconscious for more than a decade. Still, Vander Plaats acknowledges ambivalence toward Bush. He points to Bush's saying he'd run a campaign to win the general election and not just the primaries.

"That may be code for, 'Do you really want to champion conservative values?'" Vander Plaats said.

And there's dislike of Jeb Bush's support for Common Core education standards and his call for a path to legal status for immigrants in the U.S. illegally.

This year's GOP field looks to be huge. It could grow to 15 or more. And many of them are making a hard play for evangelicals. Vander Plaats says that's good, and bad.

"And the reason it's bad is because it can divide its support quickly which really weakens the impact we can have in the process," he said.

That could create an opening for Jeb Bush. It would also please Republicans like 60-year-old Dave Richter who came to see the still officially-undeclared candidate at the town hall in Dubuque.

Richter says, "I'm a little afraid of the Christian right, it's infiltrated government to too big of a degree" adding "I think it's problematic."

But despite Richter's concerns, in Iowa those evangelical voters do matter, a great deal. Especially in the caucuses. Four elections ago, George W. Bush got them to pull together to give him an important first win in the race for the nomination. For Jeb, his best bet may be if they don't.

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Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Jeb Bush insists he hasn't decided whether he's running for president. Don't tell that to residents of Iowa, who have seen plenty of him likely not just because he enjoys the gorgeous landscape and hardy food. Iowa holds the first presidential contest in 2016. A major force on the Republican side will be evangelical voters. They turned out in a big way for George W. Bush 16 years ago. But they are unlikely to do the same for his brother, a deeply religious man who's treated with suspicion by many religious conservatives. NPR's Don Gonyea reports.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: When Jeb Bush recently visited Loras College, a small, Catholic liberal arts school located in Dubuque, he ended his remarks with this almost as an afterthought.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JEB BUSH: Twenty - gosh, what was it? - 20 years ago, I converted to Catholicism. It was one of the smartest things I've ever done in my life.

GONYEA: Bush said he was raised Episcopalian. He became Catholic, his wife's religion, in his 40s.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

J. BUSH: And I believe that it is the architecture that gives me the serenity I need, not just as a public leader or in life. It gives me peace. It allows me to have a closer relationship with my creator.

GONYEA: It's different from the way his brother, George, talked about his faith, which was intertwined with policy. This is from the Iowa Straw Poll in 1999.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GEORGE W. BUSH: America's strongest foundation is not found in our wallets. It is found in our souls.

(APPLAUSE)

GONYEA: As a candidate, that Bush often talked about personal redemption, of how at age 40 he quit drinking and of embracing religion with the help of none other than the Reverend Billy Graham. In a debate during 2000, George W. Bush spoke of protecting the unborn.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

G. BUSH: I think what the next president ought to do is to - is to promote a culture of life in America.

GONYEA: It played very well with Iowa evangelicals. The future president coasted to victory in the caucuses. But Christopher Budzisz, a political science professor at Loras College, says George Bush got those voters with more than just words. He used organization.

CHRISTOPHER BUDZISZ: One of the things that the George W. Bush campaign was very concerted about was reaching out to the church networks and getting advocates for the W. candidacy, often times outside the gaze of the media or public conversation.

GONYEA: Budzisz says that's not happening in the same way for Jeb Bush. Evangelical voters are more organized in Iowa than they were four presidential elections ago, and they make up 60 percent of GOP Iowa caucus participants. Despite Jeb Bush's opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage, many voters here see him as moderate. This reaction from Republican voter Byron Carlson, a physician, is not unusual.

BYRON CARLSON: I guess I would say I'm a Christian conservative. But I think at this time, it's kind of a wide open field. And Jeb just wasn't that impressive to me listening to him.

GONYEA: Bob Vander Plaats heads a group called the Family Leader, the state's top social conservative organization. He praises Jeb Bush's record in dealing with the Terri Schiavo case when he was governor of Florida. Bush fought the removal of the brain-damaged woman's feeding tube, even after she'd been unconscious for more than a decade. Still, Vander Plaats acknowledges ambivalence toward Bush. He points to Bush, who said he'd run a campaign to win the general election.

BOB VANDER PLAATS: That may be code for, do you really want to champion the conservative values?

GONYEA: And there's dislike of Jeb Bush's support for Common Core education standards and his call for a path to legal status for immigrants in the U.S. illegally. This year's GOP field looks to be huge, and many of them are making a hard play for evangelicals. Vander Plaats says that's good and bad.

PLAATS: And the reason it's bad is that's a way for our base to divide its support quickly, which really weakens the impact that we probably could have in the process.

GONYEA: That could create an opening for Jeb Bush and please Republicans like 60-year-old David Richter, who came to see him in Dubuque.

DAVID RICHTER: I'm a little afraid of the Christian right. And I think that it's infiltrated government to an unreasonable degree. And I think that's problematic.

GONYEA: But in Iowa, those evangelical voters do matter, especially in the caucuses. George W. Bush got them to pull together. But for Jeb, his best bet may be if they don't. Don Gonyea, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.